GREAT FALLS — People gathered at a park next to Franklin School Apartments in Great Falls on Thursday afternoon for the first of three events -- a pipe ceremony, honor walk, and memorial feed -- to honor the lives of children who died at indigenous residential schools.
The event was held Thursday in recognition of the day, September 30, being designated as the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.
To the backdrop of the residential sounds of tree trimming and traffic, drums and chants marked the beginning of a remembrance for residential schools.
"This is a way to help with our intergenerational healing with each other. We bring our spiritual aspects into our ceremonies,” said Brandon Fish, who helped organize the event.
Organizers chose the location because of the history of the Franklin School.
“The Franklin School was a segregated school where they would put indigenous children in the basement. They also had an area where they had a holding cell,” Fish explained.
"The pipes were given to us by our creator to help us with every aspect in our life. So today what we're doing is helping those children (with) their journey, for their journey back to what you would call heaven but we call it happy hunting ground, sandhills,” said participant Donald Fish. "To help them with their journey, to remember them, to honor them to acknowledge the suffering that they have gone through and to help the families throughout Indian Country."
Along with healing, organizers hope this event and others like them give people an opportunity to learn about residential schools.
"When the news broke about the Camloops Residential School, the 215 (graves are) what really sparked the movement. Native communities knew this, we knew there were these unmarked graves (because of) the stories that are told by our relatives who survived,” one organizer said. "The big deal is that school only had 52 documented deaths, so they should've only found 52 bodies. Rather, they found 215. So that's how many more of our children are missing."
Other events have also been held recently across the state in response to the discovery of graves at the Canadian residential school.
According to data from the Maureen & Mike Mansfield Library, there have been 18 Native American boarding schools in Montana with six of the seven reservations in Montana at one time housing at least one boarding school.
One of the earliest was the St. Ignatius Mission School opened in 1864. The Crow Agency and Reservation over time had the most boarding schools with seven. The first opened near Livingston as a day school in 1870.
Just three of the boarding schools — Fort Shaw, St. Peter's near Cascade, and Bond's Mission School near Custer — were located outside of reservations.
The Rocky Boy Reservation north of Great Falls is the only reservation in Montana without a boarding school listed.
Organizers of Thursday's event in Great Falls said they would love to see the U.S. have a day like Canada but the U.S. was not there yet.
“As I’ve heard another elder say, the United States isn’t even at the truth stage of it yet,” one organizer said. "We’re still not fully exploring the history of everything that happened and that's one of the aspects we're hoping to bring to this. We need to start telling what happened. We can't get to the reconciliation until we start telling the truth."